Cycle of life
The team behind LeBlanq cycling experiences have teamed up with InchDairnie distillery to offer a taste of both worlds – two-wheeled adventures, riding with legends of the sport, followed by fireside drams. Tom Bruce-Gardyne tells us more
“Most racing cyclists will tell you that they don’t really enjoy riding the bike when they’re racing,” says Justin Clarke, a former member of the tribe famed for its bulging thighs and love of Lycra. “It is extremely painful, and the art of being successful is that you can endure more pain for longer. Very few racing cyclists are actually happy – even the winner is thinking ‘I could have won better…I could have gone faster.’”
Justin gave up his professional cycling career to set up the Taste of London food festival in 2004, which expanded to countless cities internationally and introduced him to some of the world’s top chefs. Among them was Ashley Palmer-Watts who, on a ‘gourmet escape’ to Western Australia, unwittingly inspired his latest venture.
The Michelin-starred chef had flown in with his Pinarello F8 “the same bike that had just won the Tour de France,” says Justin. “He then said the magic words – ‘what I love to do is ride my bike somewhere new, to get a feel for the landscape, to understand what’s growing and to really connect with the place. I then cook in the afternoon and prepare an amazing dinner.’”
And so, LeBlanq was born some years later, offering bespoke cycle trips, great food and whisky under the banner ‘legendary joyriding’. “The ‘joyriding’ is very simple – it’s riding a bike for the sole purpose of pleasure. It’s not a race. It’s not a competition,” he explains. “The bit that makes it ‘legendary’ is that we always work with the biggest names in cycling. Typically, one of our lead riders is either a world champion, an Olympic champion, a Tour de France winner or a Tour of Italy winner.”
In late September you could have been peddling around Loch Lomond with Sir Chris Hoy, no less. To be in the slipstream of Britain’s most feted Olympic athlete sounds a bit daunting, but the idea is to make things as relaxed as possible.
PICTURED: Sir Chris Hoy leads a ride, before sharing a whisky and some fireside stories
ABOVE: InchDairnie’s RyeLaw is the liquid post-ride reward for participants in the LeBlanq experience
“I think it’s about reassuring people that we’re not going to be racing,” Sir Chris told me afterwards. “When people arrive, they can see that not everybody’s a regular cyclist, and they’re quite quickly put at ease.” He completely gets the joyriding aspect, and says: “For me, personally, it’s about reconnecting with what got me into cycling in the first place, and that’s just having fun on my bike.”
As LeBlanq took shape and formed partnerships with Aston Martin and Laurent-Perrier champagne, Graham Glen, commercial director of InchDairnie, pitched the distillery’s Ryelaw single grain whisky as a possible partner.
Jason was sceptical at first, telling Graham: “Well, we don’t really know you, and you don’t actually produce any whisky yet.” However, his team was somehow talked into paying a visit.
“We had a great day discussing flavour,” recalls InchDairnie’s MD, Ian Palmer, who happens to be a keen cyclist himself. Although Ryelaw was unlaunched and unbottled at the time, he claims he can be “quite persuasive when I switch on my charm”. But credit to LeBlanq for not bedding down with one of the usual suspects and instead putting its faith in something as innovative and untested as a gentle, spicy rye whisky from Fife.
Ian took up cycling while managing the Invergordon grain distillery, and now likes to do it at his home in France. “Me and my bike have been to the top of the Col de la Loze,” he declares proudly, before adding, sheepishly: “I’m not saying how we both got there.” Col de la Loze being the infamous 2,304m mountain pass, that riders on the Tour de France have to climb for 14 miles (22.6 km) to reach the summit.
Rather less arduous was the LeBlanq trip he joined riding through the vineyards of Rioja. At the end of one day, he set up a table with a few bottles of Ryelaw, thinking there wouldn’t be much demand. “If I’ve cycled 40 miles, getting off my bike and grabbing a glass of whisky isn’t the first thing that’s in my head, but you’d be surprised how many people did,” he says. “Then there’s the dinner. You have this idea they’re all health fanatics, but that’s not really true. Even the Lycra-clad 55-year-olds quite enjoy a glass of wine, a beer and a whisky.”
“The food and drink are the reward for the exercise you’ve done,” says Jason. “The special quality that whisky brings is it makes you slow down and savour the moment, but where InchDairnie has taken it to a new level is in the actual flavour of Ryelaw.”
While the dram is the treat after a hard day in the saddle, the idea of slowing down and savouring the experience applies equally to cycling. Those cyclists, usually male it has to be said, who obsess about beating their personal best, take note. And for larger specimens – go easy on the Lycra, for as Ian Palmer says: “Some of them dinnae look good.”
The whole ethos of LeBlanq is non-competitive. “We deliberately don’t use numbers. We don’t talk about time, or speed or acceleration,” says Justin. “For us, the bike is just a vehicle to get under the skin of a new place. When you ride a bike, you feel connected to where you are. When you drive, you’re driving through the landscape, when you’re cycling, you are part of it.
“It really does feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface, because I think that selling the message of riding for pleasure is oddly undersold,” he continues.
“Most people are indoctrinated to believe that it’s all about speed and numbers and competition. And it’s not. It’s about freedom and enjoyment.”
Justin is a man after my own heart, and I say that having set up Saddle Grape & Grain with a friend where we lead cycling adventures and visit a few carefully selected distilleries or wineries en route. It shares that same, simple pleasure of joyriding – albeit without the legends.